Full title = Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind.
I think of River Phoenix as a ‘Dorian Gray’, a beautiful youth, fixed forever in time. His death, at age 23, shocked many of my generation in the early 1990s, just like that of Kurt Cobain. I must admit that I became a bit obsessed with him. That obsession has reached manageable proportions over the years since but if I hear his name or see his face I am instantly reminded of how I felt back then. Because his films were made when he was less than half the age I am now, it is weird to watch them and remember how much I used to find him attractive; but it is impossible to replace that ‘ache’, that feeling of loss.
Last Night at the Viper Room in many ways panders to the worst of popular culture, as it seeks to link real events with moments in film and gives itself an inflated sense of its own importance. But I was hooked. I read it in an afternoon and felt an emotional wreck at the end of it. It isn’t particularly learned, or original, but it touched a nerve and I couldn’t put it down until I had read of River’s burial all over again.
What I did like was its honesty regarding the value of his films. Phoenix started acting when he was in his early teens and made many bad choices, sometimes for the best reasons. Stand By Me may well be the best of all his performances. It is made even more poignant by the fact that his character, Chris Chambers, is already dead at the start of the film. The portrayal of the tough kid with the soft heart made him a star, but fame at such a young age comes with a cost that is not just a cliché. Other films were of mediocre quality with a few defining roles making him a star, such as the young Indiana Jones. He was Oscar nominated in 1988 for being another troubled boy searching for a normal life in Running on Empty but the film is more or less forgotten now. He was exceptional in Dog Fight, again playing tough/ sensitive. And then there is My Own Private Idaho which hinted at the life of the real River, or maybe it was just a role he got into and couldn’t get out of. The book takes us through all of these and doesn’t begin to pretend that A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon is a work of art, which is a relief.
Another point in its favour is that it does not seek to sensationalise his truly awful childhood with The Children of God, a cult which advocated free love even between adults and children. In some respects it is a wonder that River survived as long as he did, yet his brother Joaquin has gone on to deal not only with the same background, but also with witnessing his sibling’s tortuous death on the pavement outside The Viper Room, and make some of the most iconic films of the modern age including Gladiator and I Walk the Line. Clearly, even members of the same family deal with demons in different ways.
And so to the drug abuse. It is clear that the signs were there and the entire world it seems chose to ignore them, thinking that it was just good acting. But also, as Edwards shows, the carefully crafted image of the ‘flower child’ disguised what was sinister over the rainbow. Later it became all too clear. Watch A thing Called Love and you will see how often cuts had to be made as he almost passed out in front of the cameras (another of his over-confident-hiding-a-lack-of-confidence characters, which in retrospect, became almost a trademark.)
Last Night at the Viper Room brings all the strands together, not in an entirely satisfactory way, but it is (and I don’t mean to seem condescending) a very good effort. If someone like me, who felt as though they were bereaved at River’s death, can read it and be moved by it, there is worth in reading it.